Influx of Syrian Workers Irks Lebanese

ON a sultry, late September morning several dozen Syrian workers congregate beside a vacant lot near the port here. They are waiting to hire themselves out to Lebanese employers in search of inexpensive labor.

Hassan and Jamal have come all the way from Rakka, a northern Syrian town. They have paid $5 for the bumpy 10-hour bus ride. Each has heard that there is work here for people willing to work as painters, hard laborers, and in construction.

''I hate working in Beirut,'' Hassan says. ''The Lebanese don't like us and treat us badly, but I need the money to support my wife and children.''

Despite the difficult conditions for Syrians in Lebanon, most make more money working for a week in Lebanon than they do working for a month in Syria. ''A Syrian who digs trenches in Beirut can make up to $200 a month,'' says Zaki Abou Zeyyed, a Syrian physician who has lived here for 25 years. ''This is twice the salary of a university professor.... Medical doctors like myself make even less in Syria.''

Nearly 1.3 million Syrian laborers are now working in Lebanon, according to a series of articles published by Beirut's most influential newspaper, An Nahar, in May. This figure, which represents over one-third of Lebanon's 3.5 million population, has set off alarm bells ringing in religious and political circles.

''These figures came directly from a government report,'' says journalist Michel Murros, who reported the story. ''Government officials may be afraid to anger Syria by publicizing the information, but the figures are definitely true.''

Not surprisingly, the majority of the 1.5 million Syrian workers arrived here after Syria consolidated its grip on Lebanon in Oct. 1990, when its troops removed an anti-Syrian military government.

Today, many Lebanese complain that the glut of Syrian workers here is changing the religious balance and creating economic havoc. Moreover, they argue, the pro-Syrian government of President Elias Hrawi is doing little to correct the problem, because Damascus can have the last word on things that take place in Lebanon.

Amine Chalak, the head of a local merchant's association, says that Syrian workers are taking nearly $200 million a month out of the country. This, he explains, has created a bad recession and pushed unemployment to around 30 percent.

Youssef Iskander, a portly Lebanese who runs a grocery store in Beirut, also complains that the large Syrian work force is hurting his business, since people have little money to spend. But at the same time, he continues to hire Syrians at his store. Embarrassed, Mr. Iskander explains that he prefers to hire Syrians, because they are less arrogant than the Lebanese and because they seldom refuse to take orders.

While the exact amount of money leaving Lebanon for Syria is unclear, an official at the Lebanese central bank, who requested anonymity, privately admits that the figures are staggering.

''To stop this economic bloodletting,'' says Mr. Chalak, ''the government must do one of two things: limit the number of Syrians that enter Lebanon, or force Syrians to pay for work permits.'' But, he admits, ''the government can do little to enforce such measures if Syria does not cooperate.''

Another problem posed by the influx of Syrians is the increasing ratio of Muslims to Christians. This concerns many Christians, who feel they are becoming a minority in their own country.

Edward Saab, executive editor of An Nahar, says that nearly one-third of Lebanon's population is now Syrian. ''Instead of encouraging Lebanese people to stay and work, we are now receiving people from abroad ... while our people are leaving the country and emigrating.''

Mr. Saab says the solution to the problem is for Lebanon to make labor laws stricter without provoking Syria: ''I think it is a political issue and Lebanon prefers to solve it peacefully rather than creating a storm of objections from the Syrian side. After all, we need the Syrian labor to rebuild our country, but we'd like to organize it for it to be profitable to both sides.''

Despite Saab's suggestion, however, political figures seem unwilling to anger the Syrians by calling for reform, and employers continue to hire Syrians because they work for less.

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